Whether you realize it or not, you have a voice--a great, big, formidable voice that can make things happen. What's more, you have a lot of people working for you: politicians. (Hey, there's a reason they're called public servants.) And your influence with them goes way beyond the ballot box, so learn to use it! It's as easy as pinpointing issues you care about-- from protecting your family to cleaning up your town--and deciding to create change. Here's how.

MAKE YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD BLOOM

The historic downtown center on the west side of Olathe, KS, was falling under the shadow of a construction and population boom on the east side. That irked many residents, including Lila Courtney. "A lot of east siders didn't even know we were there," she says, but west side businesses needed foot traffic, and the residents needed to feel proud of their area.

So when she read in the newspaper that the city council was forming neighborhood committees to target specific areas for growth, she joined immediately. City planner Sara Copeland helped Courtney's group get permission to create a community garden in a lot where a church once stood. The city provided some funding (the rest has come from grants and a small fee charged to gardeners), plus free water sources and lines. Olathe's parks department plowed and tilled the lot to prepare it for crops. "We've completed our third summer now," Courtney says proudly.

The garden plots are so popular that Courtney's group is planning to expand the garden into the former church's parking lot. "We're so pleased about the community garden because we just wanted a voice," says Courtney. "Now we're speaking for this area of downtown--and we're being heard."

How you can get started

■ Keep your eyes peeled for an area in which to propose your public space, and have a specific action in mind when you ask for assistance.

■ Prepare to make your pitch at the next city council meeting. Check your city or town council's or community board's website for times and places of meetings and the proposed agenda, or for a number to call to find out this information. (To find a council or board in your area, do an Internet search for your town's name, or look in the phone book.) There's usually time at the end of a meeting for general comments, but if you'd like to get on the agenda beforehand, your community's website may tell you how.

■ Do your homework. Prepare three or four talking points stating why you want to make a change. Anticipate possible objections, and have your responses ready.